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So it is finally upon us: the reality show about artists and the art world brought to us by the Bravo Network and Sara Jessica Parker. I am having a hard time reconciling my disdain for Work of Art: The Next Great Artist with my enjoyment of it! I am lured in both by its topic (art and artists) and the fact that I am a pretty big fan of this format (love Top Chef et al). Yet in a bothersome twist I find myself cringing and getting pissed off at the way that the program reinforces tired clichés of artists and the art world. Are these clichés sometimes based in reality? Sure! And that kinda adds to my annoyance. I recognize some of these types from my own experience in art school and I want to punch them as much as I wanted to punch some of the people I went to school with. But I digress. Let’s get to the meat of the program.

To sum up, the program follows the tried and true formula where skilled people of some kind (fashion designers and chefs have been mined thus far) are thrust together and are subjected to weekly challenges whittling the cast down to a final winner. This winner gets a prize of some kind (usually money and some kind of show) thereby ensuring their place in future versions of Trivial Pursuit. This time around we have artists competing for a show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art (please overlook the numerous stories about how attendance is WAY down at the BMA – they are doing fine, really) and a hundred thousand bucks courtesy of some art supply company. Another one of the constants of these programs is the incessant mentioning of the sponsors. Who can ever forget the “Bluefly.com accessories wall” over at Project Runway?

First of all I take issue with the premise. They are listed as “aspiring artists.” Wait a minute. Are they artists or aren’t they? Is the implication that winning this show will give them the cultural validation and they can finally be “artists?” On Top Chef, the contestants aren’t “aspiring” chefs. They are chefs! That one bugged me. If they were taking a group of people with no experience at all and no exhibition records then perhaps I would believe it. And yes there are a couple who happen to be new to the art world but the majority have exhibited (take a look at Nao Bustamente’s resume).

And then there is host China Chow, whose claim to fame seems to be her parents know a lot of artists and she is an “art enthusiast.” Well all right then sister! You go host away. You seem extra qualified to be here! The judges I like. Jerry Saltz, the art critic for New York Magazine is amusing although sometimes he looks embarrassed to be there. And (so far) you can count on him to be brutal in a way that I feel is sometimes necessary. Bill Powers, “art fan” and co-owner of Half Gallery in New York, is just ok. Pretty innocuous and seems to have a decently critical eye. I did like it in the second episode when he dissed Jamie Lynn by saying “I’m done with this. I’m moving on to the next piece.” Harsh? Yes, but oh so entertaining. Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn is the last of the judges. She is a curator and founder of NYC gallery/project space Salon 94, which just happens to occupy the ground floor of her townhouse on the Upper East Side. She also used to work for Jeffrey Deitch. I don’t mind her in the critiques. She often makes interesting observations and seems to know what she is doing. That said I have a hard time watching her. Her hair style really bothers me. There is too much forehead. She is WAY too old to be trying to rock that hairdo. And then there is Mr Simon de Pury, president and chief auctioneer of Phillips de Pury & Co, as the “mentor.” I think someone should clue him in to what a mentor actually does because this man is so wooden and unhelpful that he might as well not even be present. He is just uncomfortable to watch. Anyway, what about the contestants?

Overall they seem fairly decent. We are only two episodes in so it is a little early to get a bead on them. Although thanks to the fine editing at Bravo we have already been given clues to certain “types.” We get the weird but oh so talented one Miles Mendenhall. Him, I would lock in a supply closet. He’s annoying; clever and skilled but annoying. He interrupted the judge’s critique of Trong’s work and no one called him out on it. It was a jerk move that really wasn’t explored. And honestly what does “distractingly boring” even mean? I don’t think he even knows. And if he talks about his OCD one more time I’m going to climb through the TV and strangle him. He is giving us OCD people a bad name. Abdi Farah seems to have something going on. I loved his sculpture last week. And he really pulled it out of nowhere. Judith Braun seems interesting but more as a TV personality than an artist. She adds a little wackiness to the program. Nao I’ve seen perform at RISD and I really like her work. However, she is either really annoying in person or they are editing her that way because she does not come across as likable at all. I was surprised to see Trong Nguyen get booted (sorry to spoil if you haven’t watched). I thought he was clever and made interesting work. He did fall prey to the over analytical, insider complex with his last piece though, which really bit him in the ass. I do get the sense that he really didn’t need this program anyway.

This leads me to a quick analysis of the program. First of all, why does it exist? You can take a step back from the cooking and fashion versions of this program and see a career trajectory – owning a restaurant or fashion company. Honestly, if this show was “real” they’d be competing to learn how to teach because that is what 99% of artists end up doing. I get that it is meant to be aspirational television. That is at the heart of all of the “contest” reality programs. But there is a reality that this “reality” program is trying to avoid. The reality is that the art world and art are far more subjective and far more fluid than either the restaurant or fashion industries. There is a product created but the prospects of selling the work aren’t quantifiable. Are they going to have contest where the artists learn the meaning of branding or gain some business acumen that will enable them to have a sustainable career? Probably not. It seems to me that the program is setting the artists up to fail even if they win. This is what has happened with Project Runway. You win the program, get the show, get the money, and then what? Does your life change? Does your work instantly become marketable? American culture thrives on celebrities but is that enough to sell art? Most would probably take the money and hold up in a studio. Winning does offer up a kind of security (if only for a brief period of time).

Ultimately, I like the program. I was very jealous about last week’s challenge with all the dead technology. And that is what will keep me watching. To answer my own question, I think this program exists for artists. I get caught up in what the challenges are, what they make and I think about what I would do in such a situation. That is really the power and the illusion of reality television. It is about vicariously experiencing something. And if it is something you are passionate about like cooking, or fashion, or art then you get hooked. But it is important to bear in mind the constructive nature of reality television. Trong hit on something last week when he made work that was reflexively commenting on reality TV. But it was a bad move. Reality TV doesn’t want to be reflected upon because it calls the nature of “reality” into question. Don’t question or think about it. Just watch it.

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All images are via the Bravo website.

About Author

James Nadeau is an independent curator, video artist and writer based in Boston. He is editor of Our Daily RED, the blog of arts journal Big RED & Shiny. He is a graduate of the Comparative Media Studies department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He completed his undergraduate studies at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. His video work has been screened internationally and he has presented papers on media and film at conferences nationally. He has programmed film and video in several festivals throughout New England and he is currently a technical instructor on film in the Literature Department at MIT. He is currently working on a manuscript on reality television under consideration by Lexington Books.

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